MEN OF HOPE

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*"Ne Me Quette Pas," by Wyclef Jean

Last week I was invited to visit the Men of Hope Association in Kampala, Uganda. All the men are refugees who have endured conflict-related sexual violence. This remarkable group, which was formed in 2011, meets once a month at the Refugee Law Project's office to collectively welcome their new members.

As I entered the room I was initially taken aback. It was a full house, even with only half the group in attendance. Rows of low wooden benches and an assortment of plastic chairs, were filled with men. Every wall space was lined with men, standing next to and in front of each other. The metal window frames were wedged open and the stand-fans were turned to full-blast, yet despite this the tropical heat was barely dissipated. Two gracious elders shifted to offer me a seat on their bench, as the delightful President of the Men of Hope Association offered everyone a warm welcome and invited each person to briefly introduce himself.

As each man spoke his name and mentioned how long he had been a member of the Men of Hope Association (ranging from eight years to one day), I noticed that there were tall men and short men, old men and young men, men representing a variety of ethnic signatures with voices echoing variations of English, French and Swahili accents. It was apparent that many of the men were undernourished. Shifting my position on the hard seating arrangement and wiping the sweat from my face, I reflected on how uncomfortable it must be for all the men who were waiting for and recovering from painful surgeries and medical interventions. As the final man lining the wall shared with us his name, I swallowed hard to force back my tears. Why was it so difficult for the world to respond with practical assistance for these men? Why was it so difficult for these men to secure medical assistance, psychosocial support services, and the appropriate nutrition demanded by their rigorous medical regimes? How were these men surviving as male survivors?

The seventy-odd individual introductions were followed by a multilingual and very animated group vote, to decide which two languages should be used for this meeting. Once English and French were settled upon, five of the charismatic leaders took it in turns to speak with the assistance of different male survivor translators. This process – a few sentences in English, translated into French, and vice-versa, continued for an hour and relatively smoothly, albeit with frequent interjections by audience members offering, and briefly debating, alternative translations that captured the nuance of words and phrases. The choice of words used to speak about conflict-related sexual violence against men and the consequences of such violence for men, matters greatly. 

“You are not alone” was reiterated by all who made the series of thoughtful presentations for new members, and visitors, on that May afternoon:

  1. Men of Hope was founded in 2011 by two male survivors at the Refugee Law Project. They quickly became a group of six men, and in 2017 Men of Hope now has 150 members. There are two other affiliated groups in Uganda - Men of Peace and Men of Courage. Together these three male survivor support groups are represented by hundreds of men offering support to each other and learning how to advocate more effectively for the creation of services to raise the quality of their lives and those of all their peers who have still not reached a safer place to live. “You are not alone.”
  2. We call ourselves Men of Hope, because together we are building a future that is hopeful. A future in which we ourselves and our families, as well as the communities surrounding our lives, now better understand that men are targeted for rape and all forms of sexual violence in conflict, and that when male survivors have access to medical care and psychosocial support the quality of life for each man and his family is significantly raised.
  3. Our advocacy work reduces the debilitating social and cultural stigma being endured by male survivors. A person’s gender cannot be changed by perpetrators of conflict-related sexual violence, nor by the taunting and name-calling. As everyone knows clearly, no woman on earth was once a male victim of rape. The idea is preposterous; in some quarters, would even be considered blasphemous. As communities begin to call-out this idea for what it is – psychological warfare employed to insult male survivors and women, so much unnecessary suffering will be alleviated.
  4. Anti-homosexual laws and beliefs hurt male survivors and their families hard. When laws do not make a distinction between consensual homosexual relationships and acts of extreme sexual violence perpetrated by armed aggressors and terrorists and rapists, it takes immense bravery for any man to disclose that he has been raped by male perpetrators. Women need to know that when their male relatives disclose they have been raped, the crime will be taken seriously and their male relatives will have access to medical care and support services. 
  5. Psychosocial intervention reduces self-harm, suicide ideation, debilitating loneliness and domestic violence. Counselling subtantially  reduces frustration and anger, so is not directed at ourselves or our wives. Our wives also need support. Medical care and psychosocial intervention assists a male survivor to resume or commence a sexual relationship with his wife, and to father children. 
  6. There are many forms of conflict-related sexual violence against men. The crimes can be perpetrated by men or women, adults or children, and can be perpetrated by groups and in full and deliberate view of bystanders.
  7. Conflict-related sexual violence against men, is considered a serious crime by the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. The recent exhibition at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, was called 'Rape in Conflict.' The exhibition included information about male rape in war and conflict. This was seen by visitors and people working at the U.N.  At the closing ceremony, the Deputy Secretary-General and the Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict both spoke about male rape and sexual violence in conflict and war. Your stories have reached the United Nations.

As the Men of Hope presentations came to an end, it was impossible for anyone in the room to misunderstanding the gravity of the crimes that these men had endured, nor the weight of the consequences that they were shouldering. It was also impossible for anyone present that afternoon to avoid noticing that this group of men had created a response, an expanding network of support and services, that was benefitting hundreds of male survivors and their families. But, perhaps, the most significant thing these men had developed was an oasis of strength, a movement which men wanted to belong to and took pride in being a member of.

“How can people best assist you,” I asked my hosts.

“When you return home, please share our stories. Let other male survivors around the world know that they are not alone, that there is hope. If we work together we can change harmful attitudes and laws.”

“If we could have access to a fund that provides micro-loans for male survivors, we will start small businesses. We need to earn a livelihood so that we can support our families, send our children to school, pay for our medical care and medications, and help our new members when they go through surgeries and begin counselling.”

Offering my farewells, I looked around the small room with whirling stand-fans, wooden benches and teeming with people who had told me their names. What I saw were many men with a wealth of skills and expertise. Their fellowship and knowledge, their vision and loyalty, their burning desire to live, had changed me.

Rachel Bardhan, PhD (Founder, Real Stories Gallery Foundation)May 2017.

 

All donations to Real Stories Gallery Foundation will go directly to support the Refugee Law Project's leadership initiatives with male survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. Thank you. 

Real Stories Gallery Foundation is a registered 501c3 charity in the USA.

Donations made by U.S. tax-payers are tax-deductible. EIN number: 80-0575894

 

If you would like to learn more about the Refugee Law Project's leadership work with male survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, or download their research and reports, please visit: http://www.refugeelawproject.org/our-work/gender-and-sexuality-programme

 



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